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The Mamba in flight: A Kobe Bryant Dunk History retrospective

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In each of the last two offseasons, we here at Ball Don't Lie have whiled away some late-summer moments by turning our attention to the past, recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. We call this Dunk History.

Today, on the occasion of his impending retirement after 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Dan Devine presents a special installment celebrating the NBA dunking life of one Kobe Bean Bryant.

[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]

There's been a tendency, in the latter days of his career, to label most every good thing Kobe Bryant does as "vintage." A "vintage" deep 3. A "vintage" fadeaway. "Vintage" footwork. A "vintage" start to his final game in Philly that (in his mind, at least) raised the specter of "an 81 situation."

Perhaps this is to be expected. For one thing, the list of amazing moves Kobe pulled off during his first 17 seasons, before the Achilles tear that marked the beginning of the end (or maybe just the end), is so long and rich that anything cool he does now immediately triggers memories of, and comparisons to, everything cool that came before. For another, he tried to nickname himself "Vino," and if we weren't going to go along with that — and we certainy weren't — then I suppose there are worse compromises than leaning hard on "vintage."

Still, I've found myself a bit bugged by one category of classification: the "vintage" Kobe dunk.

Yes, Kobe got Clint Capela. Yes, Kobe alley-ooped on the Kings. Yes, Kobe put one down on the break against the Celtics. Yes, any dunking done by a 37-year-old who survived a ruptured Achilles, a broken left knee and a torn right rotator cuff deserves praise. Even so, calling these "vintage" Kobe dunks damns with faint praise the ones he used to unleash.

Kobe bombed on dudes. Kobe soared, and savaged, and sneered. Kobe climbed mountains because they were there, reduced them to rubble because he could, and kicked whatever rocks remaining on his way to the next monument.

Vintage Kobe dunks — no scare-quotes needed — were breathtaking and dope. Let's watch some.

***

Oct. 22, 1997: Kobe vs. Ben Wallace
Dec. 25, 1999: Kobe vs. Jaren Jackson
Dec. 5, 2000: Kobe vs. the Philadelphia 76ers
June 5, 2002: Kobe vs. Todd MacCulloch
Feb. 6, 2003: Kobe vs. Latrell Sprewell and all who would claim ownership of Madison Square Garden
Feb. 18, 2003: Kobe vs. Yao Ming
April 15, 2003: Kobe vs. Vincent Yarbrough
April 29, 2003: Kobe vs. Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves
Nov. 12, 2004: Kobe vs. Dwight Howard
Dec. 16, 2004: Kobe vs. Doug Christie
April 26, 2006: Kobe vs. Steve Nash
April 11, 2008: Kobe vs. the New Orleans Hornets
April 26, 2011: Kobe vs. Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry
Feb. 5, 2013: Kobe vs. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries
March 3, 2013: Kobe vs. Josh Smith
Feb. 8, 1997: Kobe vs. the Slam Dunk Contest

***

Oct. 22, 1997: Kobe vs. Ben Wallace

After a rookie year that showed the tantalizing talent that led Jerry West to move heaven, earth and Vlade Divac to snare him, but ended with four painful air balls that suggested an 18-year-old wasn't quite prepared for the big moments, Bryant was determined to prove he was ready for prime time. You can't really do that in preseason, but you can drop a tight teaser trailer, which is exactly what Kobe did by shaking Jimmy Oliver with a right-to-left crossover, taking flight from the dotted line, putting his right knee into the chest of the nearest help defender — who just so happened to be a future four-time Defensive Player of the Year — and Dhalsiming his right arm rimward.

We were all Ben Wallace, wondering what the hell had just hit us. We were all the Lakers' bench, wondering if this teenager had really just Lister Blistered a dude in preseason. We were all Chick Hearn, letting out an involuntary "wooo!" and wondering just how high this sophomore might rise next time.

(For more on Kobe clocking Big Ben, I heartily recommend Marcus Vanderberg's 2014 Dunk History post.)

Dec. 25, 1999: Kobe vs. Jaren Jackson

Kobe missed the first 15 games of the 1999-2000 season recovering from a broken right hand, suffered while fighting for a rebound during a preseason game against the Wizards. (Somewhere, a distant relative of Ben Wallace just whistled a few bars of "Instant Karma!") Under newly hired head coach Phil Jackson and behind behemoth center Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers had managed an 11-4 start in Kobe's absence, but hit a new gear after his return, winning 11 of 12 heading into their marquee Christmas Day matchup with a San Antonio Spurs team that swept L.A. in the '99 Western semis en route to its first NBA championship.

The Lakers had the NBA's record, 3 1/2 games better than the Spurs, and they wanted to send a message. They did. It read as follows: "Shaq's on a mission, Kobe's back, his hand works again, he's murder on the break, so watch your freaking head." It was a pretty detailed message.

The dunk gave the Lakers a seven-point lead they wouldn't give up. They'd go on to win that game, and 44 more, on their way to the first title of a new Laker dynasty.

Dec. 5, 2000: Kobe vs. the Philadelphia 76ers

Lose Allen Iverson on the backcut off the right block, jump from the right side of the basket underneath the hoop to corral a lob that wound up to the left of the square, turn your body in mid-air to box out a late-rotating Tyrone Hill, catch the ball in your right hand and a forearm in your lower back, finish through the contact, come down calmly and flex on 'em.

It's a near-perfect encapsulation of the athleticism, strength, artistry, elegance and snarl that so defined young Kobe. That night, after Bryant hung 36 on Philly in an 11-point win, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers called it "maybe the most spectacular play he has ever made."

I'm with you, Brian Shaw.

June 5, 2002: Kobe vs. Todd MacCulloch

It's Game 1 of the 2002 NBA Finals, and the Lakers — winners of two straight NBA championships, now vying for a three-peat amid plenty of now-infamous in-house acrimony among Shaq, Kobe and Phil after barely surviving a seven-game slugfest with the rival Sacramento Kings — are pretty comfortably batting around the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets like a tabby does a catnip-stuffed toy mouse. After L.A. builds a 23-point first-half lead and reaches cruising altitude, the Nets start causing some turbulence, with a pair of Keith Van Horn triples cutting the deficit to 10 points at 54-44. NBC color commentator Bill Walton says Van Horn is "starting to take matters into his own hands."

On the very next play, Bryant does that atop the melon of the 7-foot fightin' pride of Winnipeg, Manitoba, offering a terse rejoinder suggesting that, no, this is what taking matters into your own hands looks like.

"Oh my gosh," Walton says.

It was Shaq who carried the day, dominating the Nets' overmatched centers to the tune of 36 points (20 coming after halftime) and 16 rebounds to stake the Lakers to a 1-0 lead. But it was Kobe's crushing of MacCulloch that lived on in the collective memory, even inspiring an NBA Finals ad 11 years later:

MacCulloch finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in that loss. There's a highlight video lauding his positive contributions. In nearly three years, it has received 719 views. The lesson, as always: history is written by the winners, especially those who do dope stuff on the road to victory.

Feb. 6, 2003: Kobe vs. Latrell Sprewell and all who would claim ownership of Madison Square Garden

Now, this is the vintage footwork.

Pushed off the right block, back to the basket from two steps inside the arc, turn into the pressure to face up. Pump, jab-step right to create space, beat Spree — who, many moons ago, made an All-Defensive Team — to the baseline. Just like that, it's over.

On one hand, you're screaming for Allan Houston or Charlie Ward or somebody, anybody, to help. On the other, can you blame them for wanting to just watch this up-and-under windmill happen? I mean, how often do you get to be on the horizon as the sun sets?

Other favorite things about this include:

• Kevin Harlan blessing the blow-by reverse with the "WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE" tag;

• Literal giggling as completely appropriate and factually accurate color commentary;

• That this was the beginning of Kobe's nine-game streak of 40-plus-point nights, still the longest such run since Michael Jordan in 1986;

• That 46 points in 41 minutes isn't even close to the most murderous performance that Kobe would turn in at the World's Most Famous Arena.

Feb. 18, 2003: Kobe vs. Yao Ming

Less than two weeks after detonating at MSG, Kobe remained red hot and rampaging, putting up points in bunches to prove beyond all doubt that he was at the peak of his offensive powers. That's not to say that he didn't have help from his friends — Rick Fox deserved an assist for that screen on James Posey, who got precious little help from Cuttino Mobley — but if you're looking for a metaphor for the ways in which Winter 2003 Kobe stood astride the basketball world like a conquering Colossus, you could do worse than watching him dunk straight through and on top of a 7-foot-6 international phenomenon (who, by the way, more than held his own in this one, putting up 24 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and a block in 40 minutes before fouling out in a seven-point overtime loss).

More than a decade later — thanks in large part to years and years of marketing and promotional visits, the many commercials, the exhibition explosions, the reality shows and charitable giving, and everything else — Kobe remains one of the most beloved athletes in China, the kind of megawatt superstar who inspires snow portraits, multiple sculptures and heaving sobs. As noted by ESPN.com's Thomas Neumann, though, some of China's love of Kobe stems from the fact that when the nation turned its collective attention to the NBA to focus on Yao's voyage to Houston, Kobe had become the game's most lethal and exciting offensive player — a fact visited with extreme prejudice upon the top of Yao's head that February night.

April 15, 2003: Kobe vs. Vincent Yarbrough

I'm generally skeptical about "Could Athlete from Sport X Have Played Sport Y?" hypotheticals, but this is the one that makes me think the idea of Kobe playing soccer — as discussed this week by my FC Yahoo colleague Ryan Bailey — might've made sense.

The instinctive search for open space that has him sprinting off a made free throw, the first touch that sees him catch Robert Horry's long ball over his head and immediately ready a behind-the-back dribble, the footwork to make that right-to-left change of direction on a dime, the fluidity that allows him to both instantly get off the floor as soon as his left foot hits the charge circle and turn 180 degrees to avoid Yarbrough's attempted swipe, the stylish finish, the collection of really hard things completed in a split-second in a fashion that looks nearly effortless ... all of it feels like something a world-class striker would pull off. No wonder that's the spot our man Eric Freeman picked for Kobe in his NBA-players-as-U.S.-men's-national-teamers thought experiment during the 2014 World Cup.

I'm not done revisiting this, so let's watch a years-later TNT segment on the play in which Marv Albert lauds Yarbrough's attempts to avoid posterization:

April 29, 2003: Kobe vs. Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves

Stylistically, very similar to the baseline bomb Kobe dropped at MSG; contextually, though, a world away.

After stealing home-court advantage from the Wolves, who finished the regular season one game better than the defending champs, the Lakers gave it back in L.A. and returned to Minnesota with the series knotted 2-2. Whichever team seized control of Game 5 would have a leg up in the rest of the series, and the Lakers controlled the action from nearly the opening tip. They took a 10-point lead into halftime before pouring it on in the third quarter behind — guess who? — No. 8, who scored 16 of his game-high 32 points in the third, none louder than the two that came after taking advantage of a scrambling switch, blowing by KG's closeout, going airborne and finishing with a flourish around and over rotating 7-footer Rasho Nesterovic.

Harlan's call was pitch-perfect — after watching Bryant work the baseline at the Garden two months prior, he knew what to expect when Kobe took off, and you absolutely could hear the Minnesota faithful, in unison, wince and "ooooooooh" as he dropped the hammer. That's what Kobe Bryant did: he screamed past you, danced around you, erupted on top of you, and left you unsure what you could do to stop it from happening again.

The Wolves would never get closer than 14 points the rest of the way. The Lakers would win Games 5 and 6 by a combined 46 points.

Nov. 12, 2004: Kobe vs. Dwight Howard

Six games into Dwight's career, Kobe got his first shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, a fellow preps-to-pros phenom purported to be the NBA's next great big man. He took that shot — I mean, it is Kobe — and man oh man, did he not miss.

To be fair, Howard didn't have a whole lot of help here. DeShawn Stevenson didn't exactly sacrifice himself trying to get over the top of Lamar Odom's brush screen, and it looked like, in the instant Pat Garrity stepped up to contain the play, he remembered in a flash that he was Pat Garrity trying to stop Kobe Bryant. And Dwight did pull down 15 rebounds in a game that the Magic, for what it's worth, wound up winning.

But sometimes when you win, you really lose, which is word to Rosie Perez, and in this case, while Dwight won the game, Kobe won the war. The still shot of Kobe posterizing Dwight is absolutely iconic, and seven years, nine years, 11 years later, Dwight had to answer questions about getting got. (Dwight, as you might expect, does not like these questions.) Fairly or unfairly, everything that came later — all the well-covered discord of their lone season as teammates, and their subsequent resumption of unpleasantries — gets refracted through the prism of Kobe going straight through Howard's chest the first time he laid eyes on him ... even if, as Dwight has repeatedly emphasized over the years, he never did it again.

"I baptized him," Bryant later said of his '04 greeting. "I turned him into a Defensive Player of the Year."

Dec. 16, 2004: Kobe vs. Doug Christie

During all those battles the Lakers had with the Sacramento Kings, Doug Christie played Kobe about as tough as anybody — well, anybody not named Tony Allen, according to the Mamba himself — but at the end of the day, "tough" only matters so much with a rocker step like that and a burst that quick. Also, shouts to Kobe for figuring out a way to dramatically improve on the monsters he dropped on the Knicks and Wolves. Two hands: very fundamentally sound.

Also, speaking of sound: if I was Doug Christie, the ka-chunk of the rim rattling would probably give me at least two nightmares every year, even nearly a dozen years later.

April 26, 2006: Kobe vs. Steve Nash

Two seasons removed from the messy end of the Shaq-Kobe era and one season after the Rudy Tomjanovich/Frank Hamblen interregnum between Zen Master stints, Kobe (and Lamar, who never gets enough credit) carried the likes of Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook to 45 wins and the No. 7 seed. Bryant averaged 41 minutes per game, led the NBA in scoring at 35.4 points per game, had the league's third-highest Player Efficiency Rating ... and had to watch Nash hoist his second straight Most Valuable Player trophy, his reward for an absurdly efficient turn as the brilliant playmaking engine of the feel-good Phoenix Suns.

Reasonable people can argue over whether Kobe should've taken Nash's place atop the MVP ballot. (Or, for that matter, the places of LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki, both of whom also finished higher than Kobe.) But in Game 2 of the first-round playoff matchup between their teams, Bryant exacted a pretty perfect measure of revenge.

Nash tried to do the "right" thing: racing to take a charge after a loose-ball scramble, sacrificing himself to force a turnover. Kobe tried to do the coolest thing: absolutely steamrolling him to tomahawk it with his right hand. In that moment, divergent definitions of "value" were rendered meaningless. In that moment, Kobe won.

April 11, 2008: Kobe vs. the New Orleans Hornets

After two hard years featuring first-round exits at the hands of the Suns, Kobe and the Lakers once again returned to the upper echelon of the NBA late in the 2007-08 season, thanks in part to the trade deadline acquisition of star Memphis Grizzlies big man Pau Gasol. By the final week of the season, L.A. found itself in a nip-and-tuck race with a handful of excellent teams for the top spot in the Western Conference ... including the upstart Hornets, led by third-year point guard Chris Paul, the NBA's leader in assists and steals, who had just made his first All-Star team and was giving Bryant a run for his money in the race for that elusive MVP trophy.

This super-sick, 'Nique-style double-pump reverse dunk off an offensive rebound didn't really seal the Lakers' win — it put them up by 15, but a late NOLA run made L.A. sweat out a 107-104 final — and it probably didn't seal Kobe's first and only Podoloff. But it damn sure didn't hurt, either.

April 26, 2011: Kobe vs. Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry

By age 32, with all the minutes he'd rolled up over his first 14-plus NBA seasons, Bryant's flights had become far less frequent. He tended to work more from the post and perimeter while Gasol and Andrew Bynum manned the interior, and more often operated below the rim when he did venture inside. But sometimes, the calculation has to change; sometimes, the only way forward is through.

Eight years after taking flight against the Wolves, the Lakers once again faced a pivotal Game 5 against a tough opponent. Again, Kobe went straight into the teeth of the defense, not once, but twice, knifing through the paint and into the face of the Hornets' bigs — first premier shot-blocker Emeka Okafor, to get the Lakers within two points late in the first half, and then bruising Carl Landry, to cap a third-quarter surge that gave L.A. its largest lead of the game.

The Lakers would win Games 5 and 6 by a combined 34 points to advance to the conference semis, where they would run smack into the Dirk Nowitzki-led buzzsaw that was the Dallas Mavericks. After a four-game sweep, Phil Jackson stepped down, and nothing in L.A. was really the same after that; these were the last great dunks of Kobe's final years of postseason relevance.

Feb. 5, 2013: Kobe vs. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries

So, so, so much had gone wrong for the 2012-13 Lakers. A team damn near everybody tabbed as the favorites to win the NBA championship after the blockbuster deals that imported Howard and Nash to work alongside Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace had short-circuited instantaneously, losing four of its first five games in disappointing fashion to earn Mike Brown his pink slip. Hiring Mike D'Antoni didn't seem to make much of a difference for a team alternating surges and skids amid injuries and ill-tempered interactions.

The Lakers needed something to feel unreservedly good about. For a second in Brooklyn, Kobe delivered.

"Whatever else had lapsed in his basketball life – the years, the knees, the busted-up shoulder and failing foot of the Lakers' crumbling 7-footers – Bryant had come to elevate over everything, elevate over everyone on Tuesday night," our Adrian Wojnarowski wrote. How long Kobe could continue elevating at age 34 remained to be seen, but two things were evident after his christening of Barclays Center: he could still do it, and the Lakers still needed him to.

March 3, 2013: Kobe vs. Josh Smith

Despite remaining under .500 at the All-Star break, Bryant guaranteed the Lakers would make the playoffs, and then set about the task of carrying them there. At times, that meant taking over games late; at times, that meant going up against bigger, stronger, more athletic defenders, like the Atlanta Hawks' Smith, and just deciding that they weren't going to stop him, even if that required the kind of explosion that, frankly, people really weren't totally sure Kobe could still muster.

From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

He hadn't elevated like this since ... 2009? 2007? Earlier?

"Vino," he said, smiling, letting the better-with-age metaphor hang for a moment. "Honestly, I can't really explain it. Once I turned the corner on [Smith], it was just a matter of if the help was going to get there in time to take a charge."

There was no help. Only an excited murmur in the arena that lasted several minutes after the initial roar of elation.

So, again, what gives?

"I don't know. You guys tell me," Bryant said, gently chiding reporters. "I was in my coffin a few years ago. I've got plenty in the tank, but if y'all want to feel free to criticize and say I don't, go right ahead."

Bryant might have had plenty in the tank at that point, but he'd played 39 minutes to beat Atlanta, beginning a stretch in which he'd log at least 38 in 16 of the Lakers' next 21 games, top the 40-minute mark 10 times, and average more than 45 minutes a game over a two-week span heading into the final week of the season. He was productive as hell, and the Lakers needed every bit of it, but the cost was immeasurable. Six weeks later, his leg gave out, and we'd never see him dunk like that again.

But let's not end there. Let's go back to the beginning.

Feb. 8, 1997: Kobe vs. the Slam Dunk Contest

No, the '97 Dunk Contest isn't remembered all that fondly by competition connoisseurs, especially in the age of LaVine vs. Gordon. But rewatching the final-round dunk that won Kobe the title — a not-quite-there-but-still-pretty-cool approximation of Isaiah Rider's "East Bay Funk Dunk" — you can see the future spreading out before Kobe. You can the shape of things to come.

The calm, almost matter-of-fact approach from the left wing. The stylish arc of the ball as he brings it from under his right leg up over his head, and the extra snap his wiry frame puts into slingshotting it through the rim. The pause for dramatic effect after landing; the Bruce Lee light flex. The ease which he bathes in the adulation of the crowd. The proto-jaw-jut as he walks back toward his competitors.

As many have noted, Kobe has long sought to cultivate an identity as the game's most maniacal, focused and diligent worker. All that rigorous study and craft-honing mattered a great deal to the legend he became ... and yet, so much of what brought about fans' connections to Bryant — the pursuit of spotlight and victory, the athleticism, talent and drive that would fuel his search, the penchant for showmanship, the willingness to play the villain — was already there in that first trip to All-Star Weekend.

I don't doubt that devoting countless hours to mastering the minutiae of the game helped Kobe stay on top as long as he did. It didn't make him a star, though. He already was one when we met him.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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